J. Edgar Hoover: It's easy to be the expert if you're the only person in the world with any interest.
Clyde Tolson: He does also claim he can tell as much from a cut of wood as a doctor can from an autopsy.
J. Edgar Hoover: Ah.
Clyde Tolson: He has, um, social difficulties.
J. Edgar Hoover: He is mentally ill, isn't he?
Clyde Tolson: He's only as mad as you are — sir.
The Worm Guy is a scientist, researcher or other expert who studies a very specific, specialized and often seemingly unexciting field of knowledge, but who is suddenly called in to consult for or take part in a high-stakes, often secret project that is at first blush completely unrelated to their expertise. Here, the scientist will usually find something even more fantastic than what they were doing, and that their knowledge will somehow be crucial to this endeavor's success.
Whenever one of these characters is pulled in, they typically describe vague and often ludicrous hypotheses as theories and are actually offended when proof is demanded of them. Narratively, this is also used as quick character development for the scientist (and sometimes for the people who take him). Usually they are the Only Sane Man who proves time and time again that their suggestions are invaluable to success of their project.
The trope is named after Niko Tatopoulos from Godzilla (1998), who is referred to by the military personnel as "the worm guy", as they took him from Chernobyl where he was studying earthworms mutated by radioactivity. And they couldn't pronounce his actual name.
- Marvel Universe:
- The Avengers: The Avengers often use their "Reserve" roster as a collection of Worm Guys that lack the power to operate full-time as one of "Earth's Mightiest Heroes". Reserve Avengers can be called up at short notice when their skillset matches a specific situation. This has been going on for a long time; the founding Avenger Ant-Man pioneered it. After he felt outclassed and retired from the team, he would return at key moments that required his help (e.g., entering the Vision's body to repair damage during The Kree/Skrull War).
- Ultimate Marvel: Sam Wilson/The Falcon is introduced in a version of this trope: he's in the Amazon when the military guys come for him by helicopter, and then he unveils his wings and flies up to meet them. He's treated a bit more respectfully than usual, though he does have to stand his ground to get the Black Widow's first name. The relevance of his research to the mission is that he was searching for ways to communicate with the afterlife and hypothesizes the situation might have to do with broadcasts from beyond death, which turns out to be true, albeit in a slightly less literal manner.
- Global Frequency: The purpose of the Frequency is to link up a wide range of Worm Guys so that there's always someone on hand who knows what to do when rogue cyborgs go berserk, or a Soviet sleeper agent risks opening a wormhole in San Francisco, or London has to be saved by Le Parkour, or whatever leftover Cold War super-science threatens the world this time.
- The Wake: The present-day heroine is Whale Lady Lee Archer, pulled away from studying cetacean communication at sea in order to study a captured undersea alien. The folklorist and hunter she teams up with also indicates that they were recruited in a similar way.
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire has Milo James Thatch (and, to a degree, his grandpa, Thaddeus). He was planning on resigning his position anyway, fed up with not being taken seriously by the board of directors at the Smithsonian.
- Godzilla (1998): The trope's namesake, Niko Tatopoulos, was researching the growth rate of earthworms in Chernobyl, by himself, out in the field, and suggests Godzilla was created from nuclear fallout based on a small tissue sample and radiation readings. He also gets cross when ignored about his Godzilla eggs nest site theory, which then turns out to be correct.
- Shin Godzilla: Deconstructed with Goro Maki, the doctor who first discovered the existence of Godzilla. The plot makes perfectly clear that he's the only man on the planet with the full knowledge of how Godzilla's physiology works, but by the time the movie starts the ridicule he's gotten at the hands of the Japanese and American governments for believing that such a creature exists (among other pieces of his Trauma Conga Line) have driven him to commit suicide, forcing all of the other scientists in the cast to make do as best as they can with the bits of information he left behind. Played straight with these researchers, though, in that they are a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits that science the shit out of a solution to stop Godzilla before the United Nations nukes the monster (and Japan) to kingdom come.
- Stargate: Daniel Jackson is taken away from a lecture (where the attendees walked out on him) so that he can decipher the stargate. He's not interrupted while doing his research — in fact, he'd more or less just torpedoed his own career — but it's along the same vein.
- Jurassic Park: Alan Grant is taken from his paleontological dig for a preview of living dinosaurs, as the powers that be wanted a paleontologist to endorse them. However, he wasn't making hypotheses based on little to no evidence. That was Malcolm's job.
- Volcano: The two (female) earthquake scientists are called out to the field to create an explanation why a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power employee was cooked to death in a manhole in McArthur Park.
- The Swarm: Dr. Brad Crane is the world's foremost expert on killer bees and lives out of his van as he drives across America. Despite this, every (sympathetic) character in the film has heard of him and respects his expertise, and when the President assigns him to dealing with the titular swarm and grants him unlimited power (!) in the process, his reaction to all of this is essentially a calm, "I knew this day would come".
- The Rock: Stanley Goodspeed is a special case. He is an FBI Agent trained to disarm chemical weapons, so he is hardly a civilian. However, he was never trained to do so while fighting a highly experienced team of rogue Marine Recon soldiers. He also never had to deal with a weapon that could kill tens of thousands of people.
- Armageddon: The drillers are a blue-collar version of this. When NASA initially approaches Harry Stamper, he insists he needs his team to pull off the drilling job forcing NASA to hire the entire Ragtag Bunch of Misfits.
- The Abyss: The Deep Core crew and their drilling rig are interrupted during an operation to help with the recovery of the downed submarine. It's established that the military does have its own crew and rig, but they're too far away and can't reach the submarine before a hurricane hits, which is why Deep Core gets hired. Bud and Lindsey are both angry about the interruption, but the crew are quickly won over when they hear how much they're getting paid.
- The Fifth Element: The priest Vito Cornelius is one of the only people with knowledge of the advanced aliens and their enemies, passed down to him from the priest who made first contact with them.
- Alien vs. Predator: The team is recruited this way, although not all of them are scientists — Alexa Woods is a mountain guide and survival expert.
- J. Edgar: The page quote deconstructs this archetype. J. Edgard Hoover and Tolson discuss a scientist who makes seemingly absurd claims, like being the world expert in wood analysis. However rightly claims it could be true, but also is irrelevant, because it's a Overly Narrow Superlative situation. Tolson comments that the scientist is Not Good with People and also has No Social Skills. Hoover asks if the guy is crazy. Tolson delicately notes that Hoover stating that conclusion is a clear case of I Resemble That Remark!, because Hoover is an even better example, being a policeman who is obsessed with themes like organization, scientific knowledge, standardization, a need for a fingerprint database — things that nobody before would have associated with the police, and the very things that make the FBI the force that is today.
- Michael Crichton likes this trope:
- In The Andromeda Strain, the doctors in the Wildfire team were rounded up by the military and taken to the facility. One of them was even pulled out of surgery. Granted, they had agreed to this beforehand. They'd just agreed to it years earlier and had no idea that they were about to be "activated" until the soldiers showed up. In at least one case, the guy who signed up had believed it was all just paranoia and there was no chance he'd ever have to follow through.
- The original Jurassic Park novel is pretty much the same in this respect as the film. The book makes it clear, however, that Alan Grant is an experienced doctor of paleontology and respected in his field, including an apparently well-received book for kids about Dinosaurs. He's pulled into it because his main financial backer wants an endorsement to his creations' authenticity: Grant is never 'the worm guy'; more 'the famous expert we need to tell people this is the real McCoy'. Malcolm (who is a mathematician and was involved as a consultant on the risk-factor calculations) comes much closer to the trope considering how Hammond dislikes him and his initial predictions of doom and gloom about how unstable the entire system is, until events prove him completely right.
- Norman Johnson in Sphere, a psychologist carried off by the military to study aliens. As with the Andromeda Strain example above, Norman had agreed years ago to help with a First Contact situation if one ever arose (and was even the one who created the First Contact plan) but had privately considered the idea ridiculous (and agreed to create the plan because he was in dire need for the funding money) and was astonished to be called up because it had actually happened. Once on the field, the rest of the group is skeptical about what a psychologist can bring to the situation, but Norman is the only one who sees the warning signs when the Closed Circle that they are stuck in makes the Fatal Flaw of the rest come roaring out, and he is the only one with the psychological stability to manage the Reality Warper powers of the Sphere.
- The historians of Timeline, though in this case they were ripped from their research by the corporation that was funding it, to work on something related on why they were funding it.
- In Congo, Dr. Elliot and Ross are the two "worm people" of the expedition, and come very handy as it goes by: Elliot's expertise in animal (gorilla) psychology provides the team with insights to fight the Killer Gorilla group on the City of Zinj and Ross, a self-proclaimed "console hot-dogger", is capable of handling the expedition's computers and analyze their data much better and faster than the normal procedure of sending the data to HQ in Texas-which is necessary when the jamming of a rival expedition and later solar disturbances completely cut them off.
- In Animorphs, Marco's dad is working on a research project that leads him to discover Zero Space. A Wham Episode results: the Yeerks attempt to capture him to work for them, forcing Marco to reveal the Masquerade to his father and drag him into hiding to escape.
- Robert Langdon in Angels & Demons is (allegedly) an art historian example.
- Jules Verne's Facing the Flag revolves around a Worm Guy (the earliest known example, by the way) who's kidnapped when sinister forces see the warfare potential of his chemical experiments. High adventure and submarine chases ensue.
- Jake Ramsey in StarCraft: The Dark Templar Saga. He's regarded as a quack by the scientific community but Valerian recruits him to investigate the Xel'Naga "temple".
- The aforementioned Daniel Jackson's history is elaborated on in Stargate SG-1, as he has apparently been ranting about aliens on Earth for years, and, shockingly and surprisingly, has been met with disbelief.
- Threshold concerns an entire task force of Worm Guys, taking on an Alien Invasion via infection.
- Walter Bishop is a trifecta: Omnidisciplinary Mad Worm Guy. Literally mad, too: he's been in an asylum for 17 years as the story opens.
- A third season episode has an expert on insects referred to as "The Bug Lady" show up when an extinct species of beetle reappears eating its way out of human hosts.
- Sanctuary features forensic psychiatrist Dr. Will Zimmerman. In the pilot, he discovers evidence that a mysterious boy is linked to a murder case. When his own colleagues refuse to listen, Zimmerman ends up being hired by the titular organization.
- This happens in Lost when associates of the rich and powerful Charles Widmore are sent out to round up a team which is meant to travel to the island and capture Benjamin Linus. This team includes a physicist who spent his whole life studying time travel and a paranormal investigator.
- Mission: Impossible abuses this. Gathering them isn't an issue, as quite a few Worm Guys are already on their roster, including a trapeze artist, a safe cracker, the "World's Strongest Man", and such. In the pilot, the World's Strongest Man is used solely for his ability to lift a large suitcase in which two of his teammates and their equipment are hiding, so that anyone looking in his direction will think it's much lighter than it is.
- Dr Liara T'soni in Mass Effect. In the first game, she gets recruited by the crew of the Normandy whilst out in the field on an Ancient Prothean dig-site. After rescuing her from a group of Saren's mercenaries are attempting to do the same, she is brought on to be their resident Prothean expert. In a nice subversion, when Shepard confirms her theories on the Prothean extinction are indeed correct, which have earned her ridicule amongst her peers, she shows skepticism how Shepard themself has any evidence. Shepard then reveals their experience with a Prothean beacon that downloaded a repository of their knowledge directly into their mind as well as a warning about the Reapers.
- It should be noted, however, that she wasn't recruited solely for her scientific experience, but because she's the daughter of The Dragon. She also admits that despite her (relative) youth being the main factor in ridicule and skepticism among her peers, her theories did not have the solid piece of proof but was more through connecting patterns that she found.
- It's also amusingly possible to make her mandatory recruitment rather redundant just by delaying it as long as possible; Liara is increasingly irked that Shepard and company casually discuss incredible breakthroughs in Prothean and related fields they made in just a few days compared to her lifetime of research. Granted, she's the one to point the way to Ilos in the end.
- In this Penny Arcade strip, Tycho is prepared for the day when the world will need the Manticore guy.
- Narbonic: Subverted by Antonio Smith, FORENSIC LINGUIST, who apparently has this happen to him so often that he's developed into an Action Hero in his own right. It's exactly as ridiculous as it sounds, intentionally so, yet he's still the only named heroic character to notably inconvenience professional Mad Scientist and (admittedly mostly harmless) Villain Protagonist Helen Narbon.